Correction to This Article
A March 6 op-ed column incorrectly stated that the Rev. Calvin O. Butts endorsed Rudolph W. Giuliani for election as New York's mayor in 1997. Rev. Butts endorsed Giuliani's challenger, Ruth Messinger.

Hizzoner the Curmudgeon

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By Jonathan Capehart
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Forget about whether Rudy Giuliani is too moderate to win over the conservatives who dominate the nomination process in the Republican Party. The real story is whether the opera buff's nascent presidential bid will be crushed under the weight of the Pucciniesque life of the 107th mayor of New York.

We all know about the first wife who was his second cousin, the second wife who found out she was being divorced while watching television and the third wife who was barred by court order from the mayor's residence or from meeting Giuliani's children, Andrew and Caroline, there before the divorce was final.

Now come the public comments from Andrew that he won't be stumping for pops in Iowa, New Hampshire or anywhere else. Not only did he say "I have problems with my father," but he also added, "There's obviously a little problem that exists between me and his wife."

If past is prologue, the younger Giuliani's phone must have crackled with Rudy rage once his comments came to light. See, when Giuliani was mayor, he brooked no criticism -- no matter how minor, no matter how constructive. Having been on the receiving end of one of Giuliani's withering verbal assaults, I know of what I speak.

The phone rang around 9 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1999. It was Giuliani's personal assistant, Beth Patrone. "Please hold for the mayor." He had never called me before. His skin-peeling tirades against reporters, politicians, community leaders, perceived enemies and those deemed too weak to fight City Hall were legendary. Now it was my turn.

Giuliani was spitting fire over my column in that morning's New York Daily News, in which I likened his second term to the sitcom "Seinfeld." The thesis was summed up in the first paragraph: "The show has been reincarnated as Mayor Giuliani's second term, which has turned into a term about nothing."

"Jonathan," he said.

"Good morning, Mr. Mayor," I said, "How . . ."

For the next 10 minutes, Giuliani ripped me apart, calling my column "intellectually dishonest," among other things. He hung up when he couldn't find a favorable editorial that I'd written on his State of the City speech the previous year. But he called back, spouting off the headline and launching into another 10-minute monologue.

His press secretary, Sunny Mindel, called me afterward. "Consider yourself flattered," she said. "You're important enough to warrant a phone call. You got under his skin." I knew that I had accomplished no great feat. The mayor's skin is as thin as America's Next Top Model.

People disagreed with me all the time. I encouraged discussion and accepted that others had different viewpoints. But Giuliani's reaction was over the top. I tell this story because it points to other aspects of hizzoner's personality that were more troublesome.

Giuliani could be vindictive. He had no qualms about using government to settle a score. When the City Council overrode his veto of a bill to change the operations of homeless shelters in December 1998, Giuliani sought to evict five community service programs, including one that served 500 mentally ill people, in the district of the bill's chief sponsor, and to replace them with a homeless shelter.

What's more, he released a list of sites for other shelters that would be housed in the districts of council members who voted in favor of the override. (He backed down two months later, after much public outrage.)

Rather than take the high road earlier that year, Giuliani erupted when the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, a prominent Harlem minister who had endorsed Giuliani for reelection, said, "I don't believe he likes black people." In fact, Giuliani put a lockdown on city funding for projects affiliated with the politically connected cleric.

But it was his reaction to racially charged incidents involving the police that highlighted Giuliani's other affliction: tone-deafness.

Amadou Diallo was reaching for his wallet when undercover police officers gunned him down in a hail of 41 bullets in the vestibule of his apartment building in 1999. New Yorkers of all colors and political stripes trouped to police headquarters to be arrested in protest of not only the officers' actions but also of Giuliani's inability to grasp why everyone was appalled by what happened.

The visionary mayor who brought law and order to the ungovernable city and who became the face of a bloodied but unbowed nation on Sept. 11, 2001, was a difficult mayor. Many wonder whether the trauma of that day has mellowed Giuliani. We'll soon know. There's nothing like the stress of a presidential campaign to find out for sure.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address iscapehartj@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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